When we hear the word radiation, it’s tempting to picture huge explosions and frightening mutations, but that’s not the full story. Radiation also applies to rainbows and a doctor examining an x-ray. So what is radiation really, and how much should we worry about its effects? The answer begins with understanding that the word radiation describes two very different scientific phenomena: electromagnetic radiation and nuclear radiation. Electromagnetic radiation is pure energy consisting of interacting electrical and magnetic waves oscillating through space. As these waves oscillate faster, they scale up in energy.
At the lower end of the spectrum, there’s radio, infrared, and visible light. At the higher end are ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma rays. Modern society is shaped by sending and detecting electromagnetic radiation. We might download an email to our phone via radio waves to open an image of an X-ray print, which we can see because our screen emits visible light. Nuclear radiation, on the other hand, originates in the atomic nucleus, where protons repel each other due to their mutually positive charges.
A phenomenon known as the strong nuclear force struggles to overcome this repulsion and keep the nucleus intact. However, some combinations of protons and neutrons, known as isotopes, remain unstable, or radioactive. They will randomly eject matter and/or energy, known as nuclear radiation, to achieve greater stability. Nuclear radiation comes from natural sources, like radon, a gas which seeps up from the ground. We also refine naturally occurring radioactive ores to fuel nuclear power plants.
Even bananas contain trace amounts of a radioactive potassium isotope. So if we live in a world of radiation, how can we escape its dangerous effects? To start, not all radiation is hazardous. Radiation becomes risky when it rips atoms’ electrons away upon impact, a process that can damage DNA. This is known as ionizing radiation because an atom that has lost or gained electrons is called an ion. All nuclear radiation is ionizing, while only the highest energy electromagnetic radiation is. That includes gamma rays, X-rays, and the high-energy end of ultraviolet.
That’s why as an extra precaution during X-rays, doctors shield body parts they don’t need to examine, and why beach-goers use sunscreen. In comparison, cell phones and microwaves operate at the lower end of the spectrum, so there is no risk of ionizing radiation from their use. The biggest health risk occurs when lots of ionizing radiation hits us in a short time period, also known as an acute exposure.
Acute exposures overwhelm the body’s natural ability to repair the damage. This can trigger cancers, cellular dysfunction, and potentially even death. Fortunately, acute exposures are rare, but we are exposed daily to lower levels of ionizing radiation from both natural and man-made sources. Scientists have a harder time quantifying these risks. Your body often repairs damage from small amounts ionizing radiation, and if it can’t, the results of damage may not manifest for a decade or more.
One way scientists compare ionizing radiation exposure is a unit called the sievert. An acute exposure to one sievert will probably cause nausea within hours, and four sieverts could be fatal. However, our normal daily exposures are far lower. The average person receives 6.2 millisieverts of radiation from all sources annually, around a third due to radon. At only five microsieverts each, you’d need to get more than 1200 dental X-rays to rack up your annual dosage. And remember that banana?
If you could absorb all the banana’s radiation, you’d need around 170 a day to hit your annual dosage. We live in a world of radiation. However, much of that radiation is non-ionizing. For the remainder that is ionizing, our exposures are usually low, and choices like getting your home tested for radon and wearing sunscreen can help reduce the associated health risks. Marie Curie, one of the early radiation pioneers, summed up the challenge as follows: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”